Where do we draw the line? Should we have already drawn the line?
I am talking about cultural appropriation. Indeed, it is a very sensitive and tough conversation and at times, a very dreadful topic.
As the founder of an African inspired boutique with a strong social mission, ILAVA attracts a lot of women from all walks of life. The number one comment I receive from many white women and other non-black ethnic women is:“I love the style, colors, and practicability of the line, and most importantly, I LOVE the social mission, but I am afraid that if I wear this, I will be accused of cultural appropriation.” As a result, I find it my responsibility to figure out the best way to address this concern.
For the sake of this article, I am going to provide a working definition of “cultural appropriation.”
Culture: is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music, and arts.
Cultural appropriation: Cultural appropriation, at times, also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from a disadvantaged minority culture. (Oxford reference)
I think it safe to state that life is better when we share and participate with other cultures, and the truth is if we only stick to our own culture, life would be extremely dull. We love to learn different languages; we own pieces of art from other cultures; and when it comes to music, one of my favorite cultural elements, we love to listen to music from other cultures.
Just think about it. I will use myself as an example. I enjoy other cultures, music, cuisine, arts, and social habits. I can’t seem to wrap my head around the notion that I can only consume and engage in one culture, my native Tanzanian culture. The world is extremely big and I believe we all gain more by engaging with those who have experiences which differ from our own. However, one of the strongest cultural components which I have found that gets people’s blood boiling is clothing.
Think about it:
No one would walk up to a group of white people sitting down at an Ethiopian restaurant to Injera and call them cultural vultures. On the other hand, if these same white people were to wear the beautiful Habesha Kemis (these are Ethiopian wear), the internet would go viral, or we would hear about it. We must ask ourselves,why? Why is it okay to eat the food, but not wear clothes?
Here’s another perspective. As a young Tanzanian woman, I come from a country that has over 120 tribes or dialectic. My Mother is Nyamwezi, and my father is Hehe. I am not Maasai; however, I love wearing the Maasai jewelry and the bold colors within the fabrics. However there are certain ceremonial jewelry that I will not dare to wear out of respect for the Maasai culture. As beautiful as the pieces may be, I will not try to make them into a fashion statement. Which means, for me, I also have to be careful and not practice cultural appropriation, which is a slippery slope for me as a native African woman.
left image by Rahel Mwitula Williams; right image by Gaby Valladolid
Nevertheless, the concept of cultural appropriation did not come out of a vacuum; there is a reason behind it. Dominant members of society have abused and stolen other cultures with no remorse or regard to the damage it has caused.
We are having cultural appropriation issues because dominant members in our society have done an excellent job of stealing minority cultures. They have taken them, branded them, marketed them as their own and now we have to navigate this sensitive place.
For example, if you ask me the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” which was a popular hit covered by many artists in the U.S. However, it became a number one hit when a doo-wop group, The Tokens recorded it. In my opinion, this was a classic case of cultural appropriation of music. The song was originally written and performed in 1939 by a South African artist, Solomon Linda, who was known by the name, Mbube. However, because the dominant members of society understood how the law worked, they were able to brand, market and copyright the song,something that Mbube did not know. The song was later revived as it was featured in the very popular movie, “The Lion King.”
Another example is fashion. In 2011, Louis Vuitton debuted its collection with a traditional Maasai Fabric. The fashion industry was over the moon about this collection, but the Maasai people were not. I won’t get into intellectual property arguments here, because we are talking about a population where 80% of its people live below the poverty line. In this case, you have a western designer who used the Maasai culture and made products and profits, which, let’s face it, if they were to pay off for the Maasai people, those profits could’ve changed the trajectory of the population of this group of people.
Image by: vogue
The bottom line here is that we should all, ACKNOWLEDGE, RESPECT, AND PAY UP for the use of other cultures!
I think we can all agree that we have not given credit where credit is due.
Thus, how does one engage and consume other cultures without confiscating their rights? Without appropriating it?
So here is what I tell non-Black women when it comes to ILAVA: If you can answer these questions with a “YES”, then Happy Shopping:
Do you know where it comes from?
Do you know this is not custom rather its lifestyle?
Do you want to shop with a purpose?
Do you want to be a part of a fashionable global community that is changing the trajectory of women and girls in East Africa?
Can you rock it ?
So, let’s celebrate and embrace one another culture with acknowledgment, love, and respect. Let’s be diligent about learning the history, pain and joy which accompanies that which you wish to embrace.